"Wrestling is like heroin," Anthony Ruttgaizer says. "While you're doing it, it is the greatest feeling on Earth. But in the end it's going to kill you."
We're standing inside an auditorium in downtown Toronto where, in a few hours, a local wrestling promotion called Superkick'd will hold its fourth ever show. Ruttgaizer is 44, and a veteran of the independent wrestling scene. He wrestles under the name Kingdom James, and has traveled through most of the United States doing what he does; stints in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and West Virginia are highlights, or at least the stops he can remember best after years on the road.
Originally from Toronto, Ruttgaizer has been involved in the wrestling business for over two decades, but he is retiring soon. He's returned home and plans to transition into writing comic books ("a post-monster apocalyptic Western," he tells me). The bumps and bruises haven't worn him down, though his knee is bad and his shoulders and ankles have both been busted. "None of that is a reason to stop," he says. "A smarter man might though."
It's just time, he tells me. Tonight, he's not wrestling, but will figure into the main event, when he and Jade Chung will escort Brent "Money" Banks (the three of them form a heel stable called All Black Everything) for a championship unification ladder match against Ashley Sixx. Ruttgaizer will draw the ire of the crowd, who sit in the balcony surrounding the ring and in the lower level where chairs are set up for fans who want to see the action up close. He'll take a few bumps, the fans will chant "Uncle Phil" at him. (He does bear a strong resemblance.) He doesn't seem like someone who wants to leave, even if he insists that this is the end.
Local and independent wrestling shows are entertainment reduced to its essential components. Superkick'd's gimmicks run the gamut of available memes. There is a Space Monkey, which is self explanatory. There is also a pair of hugely popular babyfaces called The Fraternity, two Caucasian males who come out drinking out of red cups and inciting "Let's Party" chants; strangely or not, this is a lot of fun in the moment.
There are technical wrestling matches, there are holy shit moments when the action spills into the crowd and onto chairs, ladders and tables mysteriously placed under the ring. A DJ is present and a walkway is set up for wrestlers to make their appearances. Most people who arrive late start at the bar downstairs; once they're adequately inebriated/prepared, they make their way closer to the action. It's an intimate setting, if also a distant one in some ways—the wrestlers' names and storylines barely register; weeks later, I couldn't tell you much about either. But name recognition is not the draw here; that would be the violence, the music, the ring girls, and men putting themselves through physical anguish, all seen up close, and at a safe distance.
Ashley Sixx will win the main event tonight. The entire Superkick'd promotion is a venture started by an ownership group that involves Sixx and a group of his former wrestling buddies. One night, they met at Tim Horton's, and decided they wanted to put their time and energy into building the coolest wrestling event in Toronto; there are, now, even bigger plans in the works.
"I've seen what works and what doesn't work," says Sixx, another veteran in the wrestling business. He rejects the notion that this is an independent promotion; "those are held in school gyms," he says. If Superkick'd expands, he says, it won't be to smaller cities; they want to do it the right way and play to ever larger crowds. Even if the show is only in its infant stages, Sixx clearly wants to establish a standard.
Superkick'd shows are astonishingly well run given that most everyone involved has numerous other obligations. They could be doing something better than coming for a two hour show on a Saturday night that will only be talked about via word of mouth. But it's a great, tight knit locker room, every wrestler I talked to said, and that's not something you can say all the time. "For this level of business," Ruttgaizer says. "This should be the gold standard."
Ruttgaizer's partner in crime, Jade Chung, is a 30-year-old former model who started wrestling 12 years ago. She recently took four years off from the wrestling scene in order to get her Masters in Early Childhood Education; before that, she managed names like Shane Douglas and Mr. Hughes during her time across several independent promotions. Wrestling is no longer a full-pursuit for her; during the week, she teaches kindergarten. Chung only participates in Superkick'd shows these days. "It gives me everything I love about wrestling," she says. But the clock is ticking for her, too.
"I don't want to do this until I'm broken and people feel sorry for me," she said, before adding. "I think it'll always be a part of me whether I just attend shows to show my support, any type of support helps wrestling companies."
It's the overarching theme with all these wrestlers, none of whom you've probably heard of, none of whom you are likely to hear from ever again. This seems to matter very little, or not nearly as much as the camaraderie, the adrenaline, and the sound of the crowd; even if it's not in front of a hundred thousand people at a Wrestlemania event, the hundreds of people who come out to the Superkick'd show is enough to satisfy the fix.
Chung admits she'll always be involved somehow, and while Ruttgaizer is insistent that comic book writing is next, he compares the entire wrestling scene to the mafia. "Once you're in," he says with a grin. "You're in for life."
Sixx, who survived Advanced Stage-3 Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and created Superkick'd in part as a response, has no wish to do anything else. He admits, quite matter of factly, that this is what he wants to do until the day he dies. "This is the highlight of my career," Sixx told me after the physically exhausting main event. The match left him worse for wear, but left his ambition intact. Sixx grabbed the mic after his win and proclaimed that, over this next year, Superkick'd will become the biggest wrestling promotion in the world.
It probably won't, but that definitely doesn't matter. No one will tell a man who survived cancer and resumed his career—let alone survived a knock-down, drag-out tangle with Brent "Money" Banks—not to dream a little. More to the point, in that auditorium, for those hours, where these misfits did what they all love to do, even that most grandiose fantasy made perfect sense.